The Factory Fallacy

When you next attend a poor edu-conference (and let’s be honest, that probably means your next edu-conference), one way to avoid gnawing your hands off during some of the worst presentations is to play bingo. Not the ‘Maggie’s Den’ type, but seeing if you can get a line or full house of edu-BS and tired cliches. One of the commonest of these is the ‘Factory Model’ of education. This is a favourite of the C21 skills brigade, because it can be used to denigrate just about anything they don’t like – children in rows, teacher teaching from the front, a common curriculum etc. The fact that many people lambast this model whilst orating from the front to a rapt audience of teachers seated is rows is an irony unnoticed by many. Perhaps they’re too busy weeping inwardly at the grainy black and white photos of young children with chalk, slates and abacuses, staring mournfully at the camera lens and reminding us that it really was grim in the early C20.

For a comprehensive take-down of why the factory model (as presented in this manner) is wrong, you may wish to read this article. It’s certainly far better than the following hastily assembled contribution.

I wish to make two points. The first is that children seated in rows, learning powerful knowledge from an expert teacher is something to be lauded, not scoffed at. The passing on of an academic ‘tradition’ is one of the hallmarks of an educated society. It demonstrates a commitment to making minds and a care for the intellectual and cultural development of children. The fact that all children are exposed to this curriculum is an educational and social leveller, and whereas we may (and should) debate the content that makes up a curriculum, a communal approach to learning is a wonderful way to bring children together; to emphasise they are part of something bigger than the self.

The second point is to highlight where we do have a problem with a ‘factory model’ in education, and certainly in the education system where I currently reside. ‘Factories’ are concerned with ‘products’. How the product is formed is perhaps of lesser interest, so long as the process is efficient and cheap, with appropriate quality control built in. Our product is ATAR, and that remains the key focus for too many. The process has become joyless for many, with efficiency and minimisation of risk being the main considerations. Quality control comes in the form of myriad assessment tasks, except these aren’t really anything of the sort – they’re just mini-products that come together in the end for the final ATAR product. The tasks are written by teachers who then mark the tasks; there’s a whole tutoring industry that exists (at least in some cases) for the work to be outsourced to, and we are all complicit because the final product justifies the trudging journey.

Along the way, we squeeze out resilience (there’s no need), ameliorate risk (it can be mitigated) and reduce the importance of subject mastery (due to the domination of the ‘task’). The only thing that suffers is the children’s knowledge and understanding, and the associated joy that *could* develop as a result. Instead, they are the ones on the factory conveyor belt, and instead of refusing to accept this system of education, the Holy Grail of ATAR and university shines so brightly as to blind them to the absence of education in its true sense.

I suppose it wouldn’t be so bad if the phrase that sums up this rather uninspiring approach to education (‘The Factory Model’) had not instead been tagged to something which represents a possible, and brighter, alternative. There’s so much confusion about education, but this might be the most glaringly obvious.

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